How to tell if you've been emotionally abused by your parents: 6 things parents do that are extremely harmful
- Emotional abuse can manifest in many ways including intimidation and comparing you to others.
- Other types of emotional abuse, like neglect, may happen if the parent has a mental health condition.
Emotional abuse describes a pattern of behavior that damages your self-worth or sense of emotional safety, including constant criticism, threats, rejection, name-calling, or withholding of love and support.
However, there's a big difference between having a normal argument with a parent and emotional abuse, says Lauren Kerwin, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice.
In a healthy argument, your parent can disagree with you while still allowing you to feel heard and respected. The situation can become abusive if your parent invalidates or discounts your feelings.
"When a parent is chronically emotionally invalidating — by shaming, criticizing, insulting, or mocking their child — the child feels constantly judged and inadequate and ends up developing a whole host of negative beliefs about themselves," adds Kerwin. "Their shame can easily turn into borderline personality disorder (BPD), substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and other worrisome mental health issues."
The effects of emotional abuse can last long past childhood. Many toxic things that parents do can follow childen through their life and make their children less functional as adults.
Note: Most perpetrators of emotional abuse are parents: about 53.7% are women, and 45.3% are men. Boys and girls experience similar rates of childhood abuse. Kerwin notes that emotional abuse tends to happen more in households where at least one parent has a mental health disorder or substance abuse issues.
Remember: Emotional abuse doesn't only happen during childhood. People can experience it at any age and in the context of any kind of relationship, including with romantic partners. Regardless, the important thing to emphasize is that it's not your fault, and you don't deserve to be treated this way.
Below, experts share some signs of parental emotional abuse to look out for, plus some guidance on how to cope.
1. They always come first
It's important for parents to take care of themselves — after all, they can only properly care for their children if their own physical, mental, and emotional needs are met.
Still, when a parent constantly prioritizes their needs above a child's, that can manifest into abuse over time, especially when the child is too young to have the resources to take care of themselves, says Tara Krueger, PsyD, national director of Family Therapy Services, Newport Healthcare.
Some examples of this parental behavior include:
- Frequently leaving young children at home without a caretaker in order to go on dates.
- Guilt-tripping a child or teen into staying home with them instead of seeing friends because they're lonely.
Ideally, a parent would make sure they have a babysitter in place before scheduling social plans or find another healthy way to deal with their loneliness like calling a friend rather than relying solely on their child for emotional support.
People who have children at a young age may not be emotionally equipped for parenting and therefore may be more prone to emotionally abusing them. However, it could also be a sign of a personality disorder like narcissistic personality disorder, says Krueger. If you're wondering if your parent may have narcissistic personality disorder, there are some signs: Their support may feel conditional and they may tell you that your emotions are wrong.
2. They isolate you
Isolation is a form of emotional abuse often used to gain control by severing ties to other friends, family members, and loved ones, according to Krueger.
"By cutting children off from others, it could prevent them from developing social skills and from reaching out for help," she says.
According to Kerwin, some common signs your parent is trying to isolate you are:
- They actively try to discourage you from having relationships with other family members.
- They constantly come up with excuses as for why you can't see friends.
- They take direct actions to restrict your communication with other people.
- They arbitrarily and frequently lock you in your room for unpredictable amounts of time.
Kerwin notes that abusive isolation is different from, say, grounding a teenager for a week as a consequence for engaging in harmful behavior like abusing substances at a party.
Note: Kerwin says younger children — especially under the age of 3 — are more vulnerable to emotional abuse than older teens and adults — but anyone can experience it, including adults.
3. They intimidate you
"Intimidation can be an extreme form of emotional abuse, as it causes the victim to feel powerless, hopeless, and scared," says Krueger.
This behavior can take many different forms. A parent might have unpredictable emotional outbursts when you try to confront them about something, leaving you feeling unsafe to express your feelings and concerns. They might yell, scream, and swear at you, call you names, or even throw things when you disagree with them.
According to Krueger, poor emotional regulation, a lack of empathy, and a high need for control can cause a parent to resort to intimidation. She adds that people with borderline personality disorder may use intimidation as a desperate attempt to keep their children from abandoning them — for example, by threatening to never speak to you again if you hang up the phone or leave the house.
Emotional abuse like this can have ever-lasting effects on the child. For example, a 2021 study of university students found that of all the possible types of mistreatment, emotional abuse was associated with the highest incidence rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
4. They withhold affection
Emotional abuse can be harder to identify than physical abuse. Like, in some cases, it isn't marked by what a parent is doing but rather by what they're not doing.
They may intentionally withhold affection as a means of influencing your behavior. According to Krueger, this can mean purposefully avoiding hugs, saying "I love you", and offering verbal praise.
For example, when a parent gives you the cold shoulder after you tell them you can't come home for the holidays, or after you express an opinion that opposes theirs. This form of passive aggressive behavior sends the message that their love is conditional: only when you please them will they express their affection for you.
Krueger says this kind of abuse can lead you to constantly seek out their approval in order to get the affection you need.
"Adults who withhold affection may also have experienced abuse as a child," says Krueger. "This behavior may have been modeled for them and become a template for how to parent their own children."
5. They neglect you
Neglect is one of the most common forms of child emotional abuse. When a parent fails to meet a child's basic needs — like food, clothing, sleep, hygiene, and medical attention — that's considered neglect, says Krueger.
Important: The CDC estimates children living in poverty are five times more likely to experience abuse. However, just because a child is living in poverty doesn't mean the parents are guilty of neglect. Neglect occurs when the parent doesn't use the resources available to them to care for their child, and therefore jeopardizes their health or safety.
Emotional neglect may entail:
- Failing to give caring or loving responses when a child is suffering or ignoring them and reaches out for support.
- Failing to provide psychological care for the child.
- Allowing the child to use alcohol and drugs.
Neglect can be incredibly detrimental to your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. A 2015 review found that emotional abuse during childhood is linked to poor immune system response and overall health in adulthood.
This abuse can also stunt the development of a child's brain, thus leading to psychological problems and potentially triggering to high-risk behaviors. That may help explain why children and teens who are abused by caregivers are also more likely to become involved in criminal activity.
Very often, Krueger says parental neglect is a sign of a serious mental illness, like a mood disorder or substance use disorder, which compromises the parent's judgment or ability to meet their child's needs. In other words, a parent may simply be physically or psychologically unable to care for a child.
6. They compare you to others
Comparison is a natural human instinct — in the same way that a child may notice how their parents are a lot stricter than their friends, a parent may notice that another couple's child is far more well-behaved.
However, as soon as your parent begins verbalizing these comparisons out loud to you, it can soon become abusive.
For example, they might say: "Why can't you be more like [friend's name]?" or "Your cousin doesn't have any trouble finishing their homework, I don't know why it's so hard for you."
Or in households with more than one child, a parent may compare you to a sibling, says Kerwin. This can leave you feeling inferior to and even resentful of your brother or sister, increasing rivalry and damaging that relationship, as well. Some people call this the favored child/scapegoat dynamic.
There's a good chance your parent isn't comparing you to others to deliberately hurt you, but rather, in an attempt to motivate you to behave in a particular way that's more pleasing to them.
Regardless of the intention, though, it can, "create short-term impacts such as anger and embarrassment, and even long-term impacts including diminished self-esteem and lack of trust in others," says Krueger.
A 2016 study found that emotional abuse is linked to a higher risk of many different kinds of mental disorders including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and substance use disorders.
A healthier way to motivate you would be to simply express whatever change they'd like to see without measuring you against someone else.
How to get help
If you think you've been emotionally abused by your parents, remember that you are not alone — and there are a number of resources you can use to get help.
Kerwin recommends that minors consider talking to a trusted adult — like a guidance counselor or teacher — about what they're experiencing at home. A trained staff member may be able to get the child additional support services, like a child or family psychologist, to ensure their safety and well-being.
Krueger notes that crisis text lines can be a great option for adolescents, teens, and adults who have their own cell phones. Some hotlines you can reach out to include:
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: Call 1-800-799-SAFE or text "START" to 88788, or use the online chat feature for free and confidential support 24/7.
- Love Is Respect: Teens and young adults can call 1-866-331-9474, text "LOVEIS" to 22522, or use the online chat feature to seek advice and support from advocates.
- National Child Abuse Hotline: Call or text 1-800-422-4453 to report abuse and/or get assistance finding free help and support in your area.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Hotline: Call 1-800-950-NAMI, text "NAMI" to 741-741, or utilize the online chat feature on the NAMI website to connect with a trained crisis counselor.
Also, if you're independent and able, Krueger highly recommends seeking a licensed therapist, who can help you work through any trauma caused by the abuse.
"For adults who are still suffering the effects, therapy can assist in working through resentments and understanding how their current relationships may be impacted by unresolved pain from their past," she says.
Best online therapy providers
Teletherapy is an accessible way to work with licensed mental health professionals, which we recommend in our guides to the best online therapy providers and free online therapy resources.
- Best for full access to a self-selected therapist: BetterHelp, from $60 per week
- Best for limited access to an assigned therapist, covered by insurance: TalkSpace, from $65 per week
- Best for cheap online therapy and self-guided work: Online-Therapy.com, from $31.96 per week
Remember: There's nothing you could ever do to deserve being emotionally abused — especially by a parent, who's supposed to protect you, nurture you, and provide a safe environment for you to express your needs.
There are many potential reasons why a parent might resort to emotional abuse, including if they're dealing with mental health conditions, substance use problems, or they're not emotionally ready to be a parent.
Regardless of the reason or what they're going through, this mistreatment is never your fault and can be extremely dangerous for your short and long-term mental and physical health.
If any of the above signs sound familiar or you suspect that a parent may be abusing you, consider reaching out for help. Children might try talking with a trusted adult at school, while teens and adults can contact a therapist or domestic violence or crisis hotline.
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